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This is a draft of one of my chapters from my forthcoming book on anxiety (the title of which I’m still debating). Hope it’s helpful! Throughout, I reference the CHRIST acronym, which I unpack in the book. I’ve put a picture of that below for your reference.
We have to turn our attention to the relationships we take part in while we suffer with anxiety and are conformed to Christ by it. There’s a lot to say, but I’ll try to stay focused on what’s most important and useful to you. If you’re not married and don’t ever plan to be, you could skip this chapter and the following one, but I think there’s something here for you if you’re willing to read on.
And the Two Shall Become One Flesh
Remember what we said about humans being made for communion? We’re disposed for communion with the God who communes with himself. But we’re also disposed for communion with others. We’re social. We’re relational. As one of my favorite theologians put it when discussing the creation of Adam:
No matter how richly favored and how grateful, that first man was not satisfied, not fulfilled. The cause is indicated to him by God himself. It lies in his solitude. It is not good for the man that he should be alone. He is not so constituted, he was not created that way. His nature inclines to the social—he wants company. He must be able to express himself, reveal himself, and give himself. He must be able to pour out his heart, to give form to his feelings. He must share his awareness with a being who can understand him and can feel and live along with him. Solitude is poverty, forsakeness, a gradual pining and wasting away. How lonesome it is to be alone!
Bavinck, Our Reasonable Faith, 188.
We were not created to be alone. We were created for communion. We were created for company.
Now, that doesn’t mean that everyone needs to get married. Jesus and the Apostle Paul were never married, after all. It’s not a biblical necessity. But it is a biblical blessing for many people. Why? Besides the obvious benefit of combating solitude (which is healthy in its own times, by the way), there’s something unique about marriage. And God tells us exactly what it is in Genesis 2:18–24.
18 Then the Lord God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.” 19 Now out of the ground the Lord God had formed every beast of the field and every bird of the heavens and brought them to the man to see what he would call them. And whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name. 20 The man gave names to all livestock and to the birds of the heavens and to every beast of the field. But for Adam there was not found a helper fit for him. 21 So the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and while he slept took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh.22 And the rib that the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. 23 Then the man said, “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man.” 24 Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.
There’s a lot going on here, but I want to focus on just a few points. First, God isn’t saying here that Adam is “lonely.” He just says that it isn’t good for Adam to be “alone.” What’s the difference? If Adam were lonely, that would mean he was created with a problem, a malfunction. But that can’t be the case because God already said in Genesis 1:31 that everything he made was “very good.” Adam isn’t lonely or even “lonesome” as Bavinck put it. He’s simply alone. And God says that this “aloneness” is not “good.” Why not, and what does he mean? Well, Adam is good as a creation of God, but the creation of humans isn’t finished. It’s not yet complete. There’s nothing wrong with calling something that isn’t completely finished “good.” A builder who lays a solid foundation doesn’t stand back and say, “That’s terrible! The building isn’t finished yet.” Instead, he looks at the foundation and, if it’s constructed well, he says, “Good.” Something similar is happening with the creation of man. What God has made in Adam is good, even “very good.” But it’s not finished yet. Eve completes the creation of humanity. Without her, Adam would have been good, but humanity itself—the very meaning of what it is to be human—would be unfinished. Eve completes not just Adam, but the creation of humanity as a whole. Adam is alone (unfinished) without Eve.
Second, Adam needs someone equal to him. Bavinck wrote that Adam “must share his awareness with a being who can understand him and can feel and live along with him.” Adam needs an equal. He needs someone “fit for him.” Think of the joy and passion and flowed off his lips when said, “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh” (v. 23)! It’s as if he’s saying, “At last! An equal! Someone I can pour myself out for and receive in full!”
Third, the equality of Eve and Adam is complemented by intimacy. Eve was taken from inside Adam! Don’t interpret that the wrong way, as if God is saying that Eve is somehow inferior to Adam. No! This is an expression of intimacy. Eve was taken from a part of Adam’s own body. She is that close to him. The expression “bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh” is one of intimacy, of unparalleled union. Adam and even match on the inside (bones) and the outside (flesh).
Fourth, verse 24 puts it all together for us: “they shall become one flesh.” One flesh. One body from two. That’s how intimate Adam and Eve, husband and wife, are to be. Their souls are wrapped up in each other, so intertwined, so tightly bound that where the world sees two, God sees one. That doesn’t erase their distinctness. But it does put their distinctness in a single circle. From now on, there is no longer such a thing as just Adam or just Eve. There’s no defining a husband or a wife in solitude. These are persons defined in relation to each other. They are joined. That’s why preachers echo the words of Jesus in modern-day wedding ceremonies: “What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate” (Mark 10:9). God is the unifier, the joiner. God is responsible for the unity of a marriage.
One Flesh with Anxiety
Now, how does this play into our anxiety? Start by focusing on the intimate union of husband and wife, and then ask yourself a question that might seem to have an obvious answer: what can one spouse hide from another? The answer, of course, is nothing! Sure, you can attempt to hide things, and people do this all the time. And it’s corrosive on the relationship. What’s more, the context of marriage won’t allow such hiding to succeed. We’re talking about one flesh, remember? Hiding something from your husband or wife is, in a sense, trying to hide something from yourself, from your true identity. You can’t have full identity in isolation from your spouse. Your struggles are not your own. Your joys are not your own. Your hopes and dreams are not your own. They belong to you both. I know that flies in the face of a Western American culture that prizes individualism and personal freedom above all else, but what can I say? Western American culture and the Bible are worlds apart. If you’re used to defining yourself in isolation, frankly, that’s simply foreign to the Great Story. We have our distinctness, our uniqueness as creatures of God, certainly, but that uniqueness never eclipses or overrides our joint identity as one flesh. There’s distinctness in unity. In marriage, there’s no such thing as distinctness outside of unity. If your view of marriage suggests that there is such a thing, then you have a patently different view of marital union that contrasts with that of the Great Story.
This intimate union between husband and wife means many things. But for starters, it means you can’t shield your spouse from your anxiety. We may have noble reasons for wanting to do this. “I don’t want to hurt my spouse.” “I don’t want my spouse to have to deal with this, too.” “I just need to figure this out on my own.” “My spouse doesn’t really understand what I’m going through. Why drag him/her into it?” I’m sorry—none of those reasons trumps the biblical view of marriage. If you’re married, whatever you experience, your spouse is going to experience alongside you, and vice versa. And if that’s not the case, you’ll experience a rift in the relationship—a disconcerting sense of distance. Why? Because you’re one flesh, and yet you’re trying to act as if you’re still two, as if you’re separate! If you’re married, God has ordained for you to walk through your battle with anxiety as one flesh. It’s not a matter of whether or not you could deal with anxiety on your own; it’s a matter of whether or not you should. And the Great Story is very clear about this: you shouldn’t.
God has an amazing way of drawing strength out of weakness. We’ve already seen this in looking at Paul’s journey as a Christian. It’s a journey that ultimately belongs to Christ, whose painful weakness paved the way to glorious strength. Christ set the path. Paul walked on it. You will walk on it. I will walk on it. We can’t be tempted to start with strength and move to more strength. That’s the modern Western way to think. In fact, that’s the world’s way of thinking. “Stronger! Stronger! Stronger!” The Great Story has the opposite and paradoxical approach: “Weaker! Weaker! Weaker!” Why?! Because God’s power is made perfect in weakness (2 Cor. 12:9).
You need to walk through the weakness with your spouse. Grip hands, squeeze your eyes closed in faith, ask God to show his strength in you. It’s not going to be a glorious path. It shouldn’t be a glorious path. It’ll be a cruciform path, a trail of precious tears that seem to soak into the dry soil of daily despondence. But don’t be fooled. God is a tear-gatherer. He knows your passions and your pains, and they’re forever etched in his memory. He knows. And your spouse should know, too. Your spouse’s sympathy and empathy for you is a complement to the H of our CHRIST acronym. Christ knows exactly what you’re going through already. Do your very best to let your spouse know. It will take constant upkeep, steady work, and intentionality. But it’s worth it. Because you’re one flesh.
Let me set out some of my own experience with this. God has blessed me with a wife who is patient, long-suffering, genuine, sympathetic, and self-sacrificing. From the very moment I entered my battle with anxiety, she’s been next to me, watching me, studying the history of my responses to panic and pressure, to the harrowing symptoms of anxiety. She’s listened as I rehearsed struggle after struggle, fear after fear. She’s studied me. That’s what great spouses do: they study each other. She might not think of it this way, but I can tell she’s been doing it faithfully. How? Because of what she says to me.
Here are some of the things she’s said to open conversations about my struggles with anxiety. Notice how each of them reveals her involvement with me, her one-flesh commitment.
I’m so sorry you’re dealing with this. We often rush to offer solutions to problems. I’m guilty of this all the time. I want to fix things, as fast as possible. But in the throes of anxiety, we don’t want to be fixed right away; we want to be heard. We want to be seen. We want someone to look at us where we are and call out the location. “I see where you are! I see! And I don’t like it any more than you do!” We yearn for someone to sympathize with us in our anxiety, and Christ does this. But that sympathy begins by a recognition of where we are, not a directive for where we should be or where we could be if only we did X. My wife begins many conversations about anxiety simply by saying, “Hey, I see you.” You wouldn’t believe the comfort that brings me. It’s the comfort of being located, of being found.
I’m going to pray for you right now. It’s embarrassing how quickly we dismiss the effectiveness of prayer. Prayer isn’t wishful thinking, but we tend to treat it that way, and then (surprise, surprise) we stop doing it. We learned to stop wishing for things a long time ago. But neither is prayer divine wish granting. It’s not a matter of asking God for something really, really intensely. That can certainly be part of prayer, and God tells us to ask him for whatever we need as we seek his will (Matt. 18:19; 21:22; Mark 11:24; John 14:13; 15:7, 16; 16:23-24; James 1:5-6; 4:2-3; 1 John 3:22; 5:14-15). Prayer is personal dialogue with God that matters. It’s “a means of fellowship with our heavenly Father.[John M. Frame, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Christian Belief (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2013), 1054.]” It’s an act of communion, an act of relationship, with the one who is in control of everything. And it matters because “God ordains prayer as a means to change history. There are things that happen because of prayer, and things that do not happen because of no prayer.[Frame, Systematic Theology, 1054.]” That doesn’t mean we control history. It means that God controls history, and in his sovereignty, he’s given us a place in it. That’s what Frame means when he says that God “ordains prayer as a means to change history.”
Taking that into consideration, when my wife tells me she’s going to pray for me, I’m confident in the action that God is going to take. My wife’s prayer isn’t going to change the mind or will of God. But it is going to find a place in the course that God has ordained for history. In that sense, there will be repercussions for her prayer. Things will happen because of her prayer, because God ordained it to be that way. When she prays for me, I have faith in God’s action. I have faith in God’s hearing of her voice on my behalf. I have faith that something is going to happen. Demons are going to be dispelled. Satan is going to be silenced. Bodily sensations are going to be interpreted with spiritual purpose. God is going to work. To put it in terms of C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, which my son and I are reading together, Aslan is going to move.
Having my wife tell me that she’s praying for me when I’m battling anxiety is like providing a rung on a ladder. I’m trying to climb out of chaos. I’m halfway up the ladder, but I can’t see the next rung. I’m grasping at air. I’m reaching for what I can’t see. My wife’s prayer tells me, “Don’t stop reaching. It’s right there; just keep your hand up. The next rung is just ahead of your hand.” God, how I need that when I’m crippled by the feelings of anxiety! And I’m sure you need it, too.
I know it’s really tough, but try to focus on X. This comment points to the I and S of CHRIST. My wife is reminding me of what I’ve learned. She’s telling me to identify a focus and stay engaged. That focus is something in the environment around me. If this seems foreign to Scripture, just remember that God often tells us to look at parts of creation in order to learn something about him or about ourselves. “Look at the ants,” God told Solomon (Prov. 6:6). “Look at the birds,” Jesus told his followers (Matt. 6:26). Look at the world around you to learn about yourself and about the God who cares for you. There’s so much to learn![I’ve begun providing examples in Finding God in the Ordinary (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2018).] And as you focus, stay engaged by speaking to God. This is a continuation of prayer. Don’t think of prayer as momentary speech. Think of it as continuous dialogue, because even if you’re not speaking to God, he’s speaking to you. Why do we restrict ourselves to praying only with our eyes closed and our hands folded? There’s nothing keeping us from praying with eyes wide open, talking with God out in the open. Will you look like a crazy person? Probably, but that’s not surprising. You should look like a crazy person. What’s wise in the eyes of God is foolishness to the world (1 Cor. 1:20-21; 3:19; 2 Cor. 1:12). What’s crazy in the eyes of the world is sane in the eyes of your heavenly Father. Don’t let stares of strangers dampen your dialogue with God.
Tell me what’s going on. This is the T from our CHRIST acronym. Because God has designed us for communion, for dialogue with him, there is great power in speech. Vibrating our vocal chords does something to calm and settle us. It also gives us the ability to do what Bavinck said we so desperately long to do. Remember what he said about Adam? “He must be able to express himself, reveal himself, and give himself. He must be able to pour out his heart, to give form to his feelings. He must share his awareness with a being who can understand him and can feel and live along with him.” When I’m anxious, I want to pour out my heart; I want to give form to my feelings. When my wife asks me to tell her what’s going on, she’s providing a door for me. I walk through it with words. I vibrate my vocal chords and start painting a portrait of myself for her. And she listens. She watches as I paint. And once again, her action in doing this says, “I see you.”
I know you can do this, and I know that you know it too. My wife is an expert when it comes to reminding me of what I promised myself I’d never forget. I’ve come through many battles and wars with anxiety. I’ve come through them. That means I’ve lived to tell the tale. I’ve seen God’s faithfulness take shape on the road of weakness and suffering. I’ve seen how close to him anxiety will bring me. I’ve seen and felt the relief of knowing something is behind me. My wife calls history to my attention, and she affirms her confidence in God’s work. Note that, as well. It’s not confidence in what I’ve been able to do. It’s confidence in what she’s seen God do in me.
There are other things she’s said to me, but these examples illustrate just how helpful and encouraging it can be to walk through anxiety with your spouse, to take a one-flesh approach to the suffering you’re facing. In a marriage, there’s no solitary experience. While we’re distinct, and we walk through things that our spouse may not be able to sympathize with directly, we’re one flesh. We are with each other—til death do we part. And even then, we don’t part in the Lord.
I don’t know what my road of anxiety has for me in the future. But I know two things, and I’ll hold onto them with every ounce of prayer I can muster: (1) God is with me and will be using anxiety to do things in me that I can’t even imagine; and (2) my wife is with me. There’s great power in with. Don’t pass it by.
Reflection Questions and Prayer
- If you’re married, how has your spouse been involved in your struggles with anxiety?
- What do you think the role of a spouse is for someone dealing with anxiety? What biblical support can you find for your thoughts?
- If you’re not married and don’t plan to be, how does this chapter encourage you? Think about God’s ordained plan for human relationships in the context of suffering.
- What are some things your spouse has said to you that help you to manage your anxiety? Why do those things seem to help you?
- If you don’t speak with your spouse much about your anxiety, can you set up a plan to do so? You might be able to do momentary check-ins where you simply say, “Hey, this is how I feel. And this is what I need.” Having a plan in place for communication will make things much easier.
Prayer (for married readers)
My God—Father, Son, and Spirit,
You made us for relationships.
You are a relationship that transcends our imagination.
And you’ve made marriage to reflect the mystery
Of personal union.
Help me to take a one-flesh approach to anxiety.
Help me to talk through my anxiety with my spouse,
To lean on my other half,
To know that I’m loved and prayed for,
And that it matters.
Help me to communicate clearly,
To be found by my spouse in every anxious trial.
Help us both to pray through anxiety,
To watch you shape us to your Son’s image.
Keep our feet steady on the path of weakness,
And when we fall down,
Let us fall into your grace and mercy
Prayer (for unmarried readers)
God, I do not have a spouse right now,
And I do not know what your plans are for me here.
But thank you for creating us for relationship.
If I am to be a spouse one day,
Help me to find ways to practice listening,
The art of putting someone else ahead of myself,
The art of communing with another.
Teach me to pray with resolve,
To know that you are acting.
Build me into someone who is ready
To be one flesh with another.
And if marriage isn’t what you have for me,
Then keep my heart focused on the sympathy of Christ.
Let me know more about his love for me,
His self-sacrifice and endless compassion.
Help me to learn, little by little,
How great a love you have for me,
And how you walk alongside me
Through every swell of anxiety.
Show me the heart of communion with you.
Draw me near.
Give me patience unending and hope unyielding.